By John Mullen
The Orange Beach Wildlife Center and Management Program has been a huge success but is quickly outgrowing its space at the city’s recreation campus.
“A lot of It is capacity. We’re in just such a small site right now our capacity is relatively limited,” Coastal Operations Manager Wade Stevens said. “There’s a pretty big demand especially during the peak season.” Stevens said a new facility will be three to four times larger than the small house it’s in now.
An intern feeds an orphaned squirrel that will be released to the wild once raised.Another problem is encroachment from the growing recreational complex itself. A new gym is going up next to the recreation center and an adult fitness center is planned to go in near the old Walker home where the Wildlife Center is now.
“That somewhat depends on the city’s plans to expand the recreational facility on that property,” Stevens said. “If those needs eventually consume that area then unfortunately the house would have to be moved or demolished. It’s been moved several times and I don’t think it could take another one. The house has been around so long it’s in Margaret Long’s historical account of Orange Beach. It’s one of the original homes from the 1940s or 50s.”
Thanks to a Restore grant of nearly $200,000, a new home is in the works for an expanded center on 10 acres the city purchased adjacent to Gulf State Park. Plans are in the works and Stevens says the project could go out for bid in 60 to 90 days.
“The Restore grant is only for part,” Stevens said. “We were already planning with some city funding to again construct a new trail maintenance facility out there and it just made sense with the Wildlife Center being in kind of an interim facility all along. Plans for eventual progress there at the rec center with the expansion of those facilities it made sense to go ahead and relocate to that site with it being so close to the trail, that’s kind of secluded on the island which is tough. For wildlife rehabilitation have a secluded area near a large wildlife refuge like the state park it would be beneficial.”
The design of the trail barn and wildlife facility is still underway so the costs is still unknown. Stevens said city officials are expecting a price tag of about $400,000.
“The Restore funds will be covering the enclosures and some of the equipment,” Stevens said.
Trail maintenance crews which previously worked out of the “beach barn” near the water tower on Alabama 161 about a quarter north of the beach are now working out of the home on the 10-acre site. The beach barn is now used for the Leave Only Footprints program.
Out at the new site Stevens says the major change will be adding space to carry out the center’s rehab and public outreach activities.
“It’s going to give us more enclosure space,” Stevens said. “We’re slowly but surely building up an inventory of some educational ambassadors. These are non-releasable animals that we use for outreach and education opportunities so we’ll have more space for those animals there in addition to the rehab animals.
“In general, space for personnel, storage, things of that nature. We operate a resident intern program so going to that facility is going to allow us more physical space for more interns and staff whereas now we’re relatively limited. They’re packed into that little house. Not only where they stay but where they work. It’s just not enough room.”
The center has a resident skunk, macaw, a few snakes, turtles, a bobcat that was bought out of state as a pet, a great-horned owl and a happy, busy otter that has its own pool and play area. But space at the current center doesn’t allow enough separation from those being rehabbed for an eventual release back into the wild.
“Another big advantage of the overall size of the property is being able to really separate our educational ambassador animals from our rehab side,” Stevens said. “From the disease perspective you want to try and keep that completely isolated. We don’t have that luxury right now. We keep them in separate sides of an enclosure with a hallway separating them but ideally you want two separate facilities in general.”
A larger facility will also be helpful in keeping similar animals grouped together within the new, larger place.
“Right now, a lot of our animals are kind of comingled,” Stevens said. “You might have baby birds and baby mammals in very close proximity in a small building whereas in this building we’ll be able to spread out some and have different rooms for each type of animal. That’s going to be very helpful. We can have more songbirds in one area and shore birds, baby mammals and be able to separate that.”
One of the most exciting features will be outside areas including using the pond on site to help in the rehabilitation of shorebirds.
“We’ve got the little pond there on the 10 acres which is going to give us something we don’t have now a natural body of water,” Stevens said. “We’re going to incorporate some of that for some of our shorebirds so that during their rehab time they’re not just in an artificial pool. They’ve got some time they can spend there on a body of water. We’ve got the ability to go out and essentially make a couple of cuts in the fence to fence a small portion of the shoreline and that will allow them to get in the water and still interact in a more natural way. That’s going to be really helpful. It’s fully enclosed.”
Another component will help the center expand its care of raptors including bald eagles.
“The other neat thing about out there that we don’t have here and it’s our large flight enclosure,” Stevens said. “It’s under construction now. A flight enclosure allows us to take in bald eagle sized birds which has to be over 100 feet long. It’s a big enclosure and it was already funded in part by a NFWF grant. We’ve got mostof that all up and ready to go. Now we’re just waiting on the rest of it. As soon as Restore comes through we’re ready to get started.”
In the future, Stevens says, he’d like to see some classes and clubs from the nearby new high school and middle school start programs at the center as well.
“We already deliver education programming to all grades at the elementary school and now with a middle and high school we’re working with those principals and educators to find ways to integrate the middle and high school into a wildlife program as well,” Stevens said. “Which could include some afterschool programs, clubs and things of that nature. We already have multiple high school students that volunteer with us weekly. It is part of our plan to incorporate an outdoor classroom area and some other things even including the possibility of woodshop or technical elements in that facility that should they desire to we could help turn it into a school project. They can help build things we utilize or need to utilize out on the trail.”
He said plans are also in the works for a connector path from the Backcountry Trail to the new center and eventually some interaction there with the resident animal ambassadors.
The center has come a long way since its start in Stevens’ garage when he was a firefighter for the city. “I’ve done wildlife on and off – mostly on – since about 1999. That was when we really got it kicked off and it’s gone back and forth through some different variations,” he said. “I rehabbed many animals in my garage at home before there was anything official.”
Back in those early days the police and fire department were both called out on emergencies and it seemed the wildlife calls just fell to firefighters.
“It really doesn’t matter what the incident is somebody’s got to deal with it,” Stevens said. “Law enforcement typically dealt with criminal activities and had other responsibilities and the fire department would tend to get the animal calls.”
He and interested firefighters began handling marine mammal and sea turtle rescues and rehabs and eventually there were stranding networks and the current Share the Beach programs were created.
“Once that was covered I shifted focus to birds and mammals,” Stevens said. “We started over the years working on how we were going to deal with those types of calls. The goal was to do it the right way. We set out with a goal to develop a state and federally licensed and permitted wildlife rehabilitation facility and that’s where we are today.”